Late last year author David Griffith wrote a timely essay in The Paris Review about Flannery O’Connor’s infrequently anthologized short story, “The Displaced Person.”* He was inspired to do so by the ongoing political debates over immigration. First published as a short story in 1955, the story was made into a tv movie with John Housman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Irene Worth in 1977.
O’Connor generally avoided stories that tried to make a particular point about social issues. Topical writing can sink unpleasantly into polemics or become outdated. Think about the reservations people now have about The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the McCarthy era witch hunts. Griffith says O’Connor’s story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” is another exception. (It’s the unforgettable tale of the mother who gets on the bus wearing her distinctive hat.) It manages both to avoid lecturing the reader as well as remaining relevant, as the bigotry it lampoons has not disappeared and constantly shifts to new targets. As have suspicion and resentment of “the displaced.”
More important, says Griffith, “To be topical, (O’Connor) thought, was to risk arguing for social changes that couldn’t be brought about by mere idealism, but by the hard, messy, and sometimes violent work of transforming hearts.” We hear that in the current campaign as well. Idealistic, pie-in-the-sky proposals from politicians that have not a wisp of a chance to become anyone’s reality. When we think about the desperate parents of Guatemala, who were willing to part with their beloved children and send them impossibly far away to the United States to keep them safe (only to find they weren’t welcome here), the difficulty of transforming greedy hearts is abundantly clear.
Griffith, like other students of O’Connor’s works, would argue that in fact many of her characters are displaced persons—if not literally, he says, then figuratively: “morally rudderless, existentially lost, or both.” And their displacement comes from their inability to love their neighbor. One way Griffith describes displacement is being “without a community to care for you” and, I’d add, “to care about.” The loss of caring community certainly describes the situation facing migrants all over the world today. They did not ask for their home countries—their caring communities—to become disastrous, murderous places.
“The Displaced Person,” Griffith concludes,“carries a dark moral force without recourse to didacticism or sentimentality.” The character in this post-World War II story has been displaced through the intolerance and hatred spawned by the Third Reich. Yet O’Connor does not refer to the war itself, but instead focuses “on the long shadow cast by this kind of evil,” a shadow that at the time of her writing extended all the way to Milledgeville, Georgia, and that in 2016 is deepening across our beloved country.
*If you search for “The Displaced Person full text,” the Gordon State College link has it as a rather funky pdf.